A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
The Big Book of Tai Chi
Build Health Fast in Slow Motion
by Bruce Frantzis
(Thorsons, 2003, 292 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
In order to characterize Bruce Frantzis’s The Big Book of Tai Chi, I have to lead off with two different concepts. The first, which is stated in the book’s subtitle, is “slow motion.” Tai Chi is a movement art that is generally practiced at speeds slower than one would usually move. There are a great many reasons to practice Tai Chi slowly, one of which is that it enables the practitioner to more carefully observe the physicality, balance, flow, and dynamics of the various movements. In other words, practicing at slow speeds gives the practitioner greater time for observational awareness.
Tied to slow speed and observational awareness is the idea of mental discipline. As with slowness, there are many aspects to this idea, but pertinent at the moment is the fact that Tai Chi’s slow speed encourages one to slow down and sublimate the overt conscious thinking process. This helps one loosen the inhibitory control over one’s movements that is created by the constant stream of conscious thoughts running through our heads. If one thinks ten thoughts while performing a movement at normal speeds, then one will think one hundred thoughts while performing the same movement at one-tenth normal speed. Over time, moving slowly aids one in learning to slow down and ignore the constant chatter in one’s head and focus even more deeply on observational awareness.
The second concept is linked to my general definition of Category I Tai Chi books, which usually are manuals for those interested in taking up Tai Chi or those who have only recently begun practicing. These books are all very similar, generally leading off with some background material which includes history, philosophy, operational precepts, health effects, and other matters, such as how to find a teacher. Then there comes a long section detailing a Tai Chi form—usually photos accompanied by instructional text. Next there sometimes are demonstrations of push hands and applications for the moves. And finally, a few of the Tai Chi Classics often are included in the body text after the instruction section or in an appendix. In such books, the background material can range from the shallow to the profound, but no matter how well presented it is, it usually does not go into great detail on any one subject and will leave out a number of topics that could be discussed given greater space.
These concepts apply to The Big Book of Tai Chi in a very Tai Chi way. Although it is, in some ways, a Category I book, there are no form instruction or Tai Chi Classics. Instead, Frantzis takes the background material one would find in a Category I book, slows it down and applies observational awareness to completely parse just about every aspect of Tai Chi that is not directly related to form. It’s sort of like taking one section of a Tai Chi form, slowing it down, and completely describing each and every aspect and movement, from the macro to the micro. In essence, he’s taken material that most Tai Chi authors present in, say, thirty pages, and slowed it down ten times to fill three hundred pages, revealing details that the others have glossed over or ignored entirely.
The results are curious in a way that has nothing to do with the information itself, the way it is presented, or the writing, which is authoritative and more than adequate in terms of style. The oddness comes from trying to figure out just who the audience is. At the beginng of the book, an author’s note reads: “My purpose is to share ideas about how and why tai chi works to stimulate thought and further inquiry. My experience of studying in China for 11 years with masters in tai chi and chi gung has given me a unique perspective. I hope this book will encourage scientists to make formal studies of tai chi’s health benefits, inspire people to try tai chi, and provide tools to enable current tai chi practitioners and instructors to upgrade their skills and gain more benefits and satisfaction from their practice.”
I think that Frantzis succeeds in addressing some of these matters—particularly the latter two—but he is less successful with others. On the surface, this book is sort of like a very thick advertising brochure that tries to convince a prospective buyer of a product or service to buy this particular one. It is a raison d’être for taking up Tai Chi, and the material it presents is as deep as it is voluminous. But I have to wonder just how many people shopping for Tai Chi are apt to buy and read a three-hundred-page book prior to signing up for a class. In my experience, most people approach Tai Chi by seeking a local instructor rather than by reading books about it first, though I have to admit that once I decided to take up Tai Chi, I read a book on it during the interval between signing up and attending the first class. But The Big Book of Tai Chi is a lot of book to read for someone just thinking about taking Tai Chi.
Worse, while Frantzis touts the great many benefits of Tai Chi practice—and does so well—he also makes learning Tai Chi seem like a daunting task. Okay, it is, but at beginner levels, the difficulties are generally physical and rather basic. So when Frantzis starts talking about having to learn material like the 16-Part Nei Gung system and other aspects that are more of a concern to intermediate and advanced students and that obviously take years, if not decades, of practice, I wonder if he makes the Tai Chi learning curve seem too steep for the average person who expresses an interest in Tai Chi. This is sort of ironic, considering that the book’s subtitle is “Build Health Fast in Slow Motion.” You can’t build anything if you discourage the builders from participating, and further, you can’t really build Tai Chi fast. Tai Chi is all about slow motion, from the speed of the movements to the length of time required to master the basic tenets and onward to progressively greater mastery.
Although the book’s obvious target audience seems to be folks shopping for Tai Chi, at the same time, the pages contain a lot of information that would be more of of interest to intermediate and more advance practitioners, who don't seem to be the overt target audience. Unlike a lot of Western teachers of the internal martial and exercise arts, Frantzis spent some time learning from experts in China, and he possesses a lot of information that is not common knowledge among Western Tai Chi practitioners. And a lot of that knowledge has found its way into this book, though it is interspersed with a great deal of information that would be well known to the average Tai Chi journeyman. And as for inspiring scientists to study Tai Chi, well, they’d have to read it first, and it doesn’t seem like the sort of book the average researcher might pick up to gain inspiration. But I say this while being a lover of scientific research into Tai Chi and its related internal arts.
Okay, now down to the nuts-and-bolts of the book. We already know that The Big Book of Tai Chi is not an instruction manual. Nor is it an intensive look at principles, though many principles and precepts are covered to a greater or lesser extent. Instead, it is a low-altitude and very thorough survey of a great number of Tai Chi’s aspects—you are given a picture of the broader landscape as well as more sharply focused views of specific important features of the terrain.
The book opens with a lengthy introduction by Diane Rappaport, one of Frantzis’s more senior students. Then Frantzis takes over, defining Tai Chi in chapter one. This includes definitions of chi, Taoist energy arts, and other basic information. Chapter two delves into the background of traditional Chinese medicine. It is a detailed overview that includes discussions of the meridian system, the philosophy behind traditional Chinese medicine, and several types of health: physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual.
Chapter three is on how Tai Chi improves health, and it includes several specific exercises for strengthening the legs and stances. Twisting, turning, and spiraling are discussed, as are alignments, relaxation, and increasing chi flow. Chapter four discusses how Tai Chi helps reduce and manage stress. Tai Chi and longevity is the subject of chapter five, and here Frantzis devotes considerable space to practitioners who are older than fifty. Tai Chi’s benefits for different groups of people occupy chapter six. One focus here is how Tai Chi can benefit office workers, and another is how it benefits people with disabilities.
Chapter seven discusses Tai Chi for physical and emotional self-defense, but don’t expect photos of attacks and defense, though there are a handful. Instead, Frantzis explores the differences between the internal and external martial arts, the stages of learning Tai Chi as a martial art, practicing with weapons, and push hands. Tai Chi and spirituality are covered in the next chapter, and the material here frequently becomes more philosophical in content. Some of the topics are meditation, dissolving energy blockages, and connecting one’s essence to the Tao.
Choosing a Tai Chi style is covered in chapter nine, and while this might seem like beginner material, Frantzis uses the space to discuss the major Tai Chi styles and their differences, large frame versus short frame styles, long forms versus short forms, and the best style for a beginner based on the person’s individual needs and desires. It’s a very nice summation, and the information is useful for anyone wanting to know a little bit about styles other than their own.
Frantzis uses these ideas to segue into chapter ten, which discusses what a beginner can expect to learn, Tai Chi’s several levels of complexity, challenges to learning, and learning strategies. He continues in this same vein in chapter eleven, now targeting what intermediate and advanced students can expect to learn. This is all useful information for teachers as well as students. One facet of learning is integrating the Three Treasures: body, energy, and spirit. He also talks about how to transition from external to internal movements, coordinating movement with breath, circularity, five progressive stages of twisting, spiraling, and turning, chi development, fa jin, and how to practice for high-level performance. A subsection describing the Tai Chi Classics is included, but Frantzis does not replicate any of the Classics themselves.
Choosing a teacher is the subject of the final chapter. After this are three appendices: on the differences between Tai Chi and chi kung, on the Five Elements, and on the differences between Tai Chi and yoga.
I do have to mention one production flaw in this book. The type font used for the body text is a sanserif. For those who don’t know, a serif font has little ticks, called serifs, at the end of each line. Sanserif fonts don’t—“san” means “without.” This is an F in a serif font, and this is an F in a sanserif font. Serif fonts help the eye distinguish the various characters more readily than do fonts without serifs. Typographers generally agree that sanserif fonts do not work well for large amounts of body text in printed works. Serf fonts are much better for that, while sanserif fonts are generally relegated to miscellaneous copy: headlines, subheads, sidebars, and captions for photos and illustrations. Oddly, just the opposite is true of web pages, where sanserif fonts tend to work better than serif fonts for body text. Unfortunately, the body copy in The Big Book of Tai Chi is set in a sanserf font that also is fairly light. Maybe the book designer thought that the light sanserif font was an elegant touch, but reading this lengthy book was a chore for my eyesight. Typography should aid the reader, not inhibit the process.
I’ve glossed over a great deal of what the book has to offer since Frantzis goes into some depth as well as breadth that is not easily or succinctly summarized. You’ll have to read the book to get all the details. But I will say that The Big Book of Tai Chi, though unusual in some respects, is basically a Category III book, a type that eschews form instruction and tries to get at the base ground of what Tai Chi is and how it works. It’s well written, informative, and covers some material not easily found elsewhere. It’s not a must, perhaps, but it would be a valuable addition to any Tai Chi library.